I annoy people with my desire, and ability, to find a silver lining in life's mishaps and misfortunes. "Not everything has an upside!" a friend nearly-shouted at me after I pointed out that her recently deceased great-aunt was no longer suffering.
I get that it doesn't always help to point out how much we grow because of difficult situations, particularly when we are still in them, and that sometimes people just need to feel deeply sad, or embarrassed, or whatever—without also considering the upside of their negative situation. But it turns out that my ability to find the good in bad situations is another reason that I'm lucky. I'm exhibiting another "Luck Factor": something that actually makes people more fortunate when consciously employed. (This post continues this series on the science of luck.)
"In the long run, you make your own luck―good, bad, or indifferent."― Loretta Lynn
According to luck researcher Richard Wiseman (check out his book, The Luck Factor) one vital thing lucky people do—or that anyone can do to make themselves luckier—is they see the good side of their bad luck. When something bad happens to an unlucky person, they are likely to see their misfortune simply as bad luck, and gripe about it. Lucky people instead see how the situation could have been much worse.
The other day my (very lucky) friend was emailing me about how all FOUR of her children have the H1N1 flu, effectively canceling their vacation. "OMG, how awful!" I wrote, thinking of her baby, toddler, and two grade school daughters throwing up and suffering from high fevers. "Well thank god Kurt and I didn't get it, too," she wrote back, "and how lucky that it happened over a vacation so nobody missed school or work!" Turns out that imagining how things might have been worse is a way to secure better luck in the future because it helps us recover from life's difficulties. We all fall down; lucky people are up and running again faster.
Another component of this luck factor is believing that, in the long-run, things will all work out for the best. The definitive example of this in my family is the case of an ill-timed and unwanted move. As hard as it was, we are now able to list all the great things about our lives that would never have come to pass if we hadn't moved.
My kids and I love to read Jon Muth's book Zen Shorts, which includes an ancient parable about a farmer's son who breaks his leg. When his neighbors say, "What bad luck!" the farmer says only "Maybe." Turns out the broken leg saves his son from going to war; similarly, his run-away horse ("Bad Luck!") brings back several more from the wild ("Good Luck!") and so on.
This game of "Good luck, bad luck...who knows?" is great to play with kids to help them see that often good things come from what seems like misfortune, and that what is difficult in the moment can lead to fortune in the future. We take turns naming something that seems like misfortune (sometimes fictional, often not) and then seeing how quickly someone can name something good about it. "Forgetting your lunch at school today," I might suggest, to have the kids rush in with, "Sharing with friends! Getting Cheetos from Amelia!"
Not only does this make us feel better about life's more difficult moments, it also helps us learn and recover from our mistakes. Lucky people take concrete steps to prevent future misfortune. Unlucky people are less creative in the face of challenge—they give up and go home more quickly, grumbling about their lousy luck—while lucky people tend to be both persistent and resilient in the face of failure or misfortune. Children can be taught to actively seek change when they aren't getting the results that they hoped for rather than blaming "bad luck." The first step in constructive problem solving is NOT to assume that there is nothing you can do about the situation, but rather to do something about it now: make lists of options, seek constructive feedback, start developing new skills.
This "Luck Factor" seems to me to be the crux of this blog: the ability to see the glass half full. The glass is already always half full, if only we are able to see it that way. I certainly always knew that that sort of optimism makes us happier; I also knew that optimism is learned, and therefore something that we can teach and practice with our kids. Now I also know that seeing the glass half full brings us good fortune.
How do you teach your kids to find the good in bad situations? Talk about it at dinner tonight and report back with your kids' reactions! Be sure to include the ages of your kids, and how you introduced the discussion.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, whose mission it is to teach skills for a thriving, resilient and compassionate society. Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature in neuroscience, sociology, and psychology to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of the new book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and of a blog called Half Full. Dr. Carter also has a private consulting practice helping families and schools structure children's lives for happiness; she lives near San Francisco with her family.